By Zach Arnold | February 24, 2007
By Zach Arnold
PRIDE 33 will go down as an event that, on paper, had a fight card line-up that looked like a turkey but produced some exciting fights. Short-term, the event was successful. Long-term, however, major damage was done to several of PRIDE’s key Japanese assets.
There is no turning back to Japan now for PRIDE.
The image that PRIDE’s American promoters tried to present for this event versus what the promotion has tried to present their Japanese fans at home are two entirely different pictures. Going into the PRIDE 33 event, the one match that PRIDE spent some time seriously promoting in the media was Takanori Gomi vs. Nick Diaz. The main event (Vanderlei Silva vs. Dan Henderson for the 205-pound Middleweight title) was briefly discussed, but not pushed. Throughout the PRIDE 33 card, themes pushed in America were not the same as the themes pushed in Japan.
A very positive step forward for PRIDE on the US PPV telecast was the duo of Lon McEachern and Josh Barnett. The two made a great combination for calling the action in the ring. Barnett was especially strong on color commentary. Good work from both men.
One fighter who suffered major damage to his PRIDE career was Kazuo Misaki, winner of PRIDE’s 2006 Welterweight (185-pound) GP tournament. Misaki beat PRIDE’s Welterweight champion, Dan Henderson, on August 26th last year in Nagoya. The upset win propelled Misaki in the Welterweight GP tournament, with that tournament’s semi-finals and finals happening at Bushido on November 3rd at Yokohama Arena. Because the Bushido event went over six hours in length and was considered a boring disaster by promoters, it’s an event that DSE promoters rarely discuss in public or acknowledge. Misaki, due to an injury by Paulo Filho, defeated Denis Kang in an exciting Welterweight GP tournament finals match to win the event. It was a high point in Misaki’s career, and most assuredly set-up on paper an anticipated match between Misaki (the 2006 Welterweight GP champion) and Dan Henderson (PRIDE welterweight champion). DSE had an opportunity to book the fight for their New Year’s Eve event.
The promotion then had a chance to book the fight for their PRIDE 33 event in Las Vegas.
Instead, PRIDE decided to strangely book Kazuo Misaki against ICON Sport 170-pound champion Frank Trigg. Trigg had only fought once in the PRIDE ring (PRIDE 8 in November of 1999). His only relation to PRIDE was replacing Bas Rutten as color commentator on PRIDE PPVs and PRIDE Fox Sports Net shows. That’s it. That was the only marketing qualifications for placing Trigg in a fight against Misaki. In the eyes of the PRIDE promoters, because he’s an American who fought for UFC and is a face of PRIDE in America, he’s acceptable to book against Misaki in a fight. On paper, Misaki vs. Trigg made little sense to book. If Trigg won the fight, it would be viewed by casual American MMA fans as an ex-UFC fighter beating PRIDE’s second-best Welterweight on paper (behind Henderson). If Misaki won the fight, he beat a fighter who normally fights at a weight-class below Welterweight and a fighter who’s most memorable lowlight was getting choked out by Matt Hughes. For Misaki, this fight had little to no benefit for him whatsoever. For DSE, this clearly was a situation in which they didn’t bother to protect Misaki in their matchmaking. For Trigg, he had everything to gain and little to lose.
Frank Trigg ended up defeating Kazuo Misaki via unanimous decision (winning all three rounds, 30-27, on the scorecards). Misaki’s image in Japan takes a big hit from this loss. It also limits what fight options he has coming up in PRIDE. More than likely, Misaki will have to face a healthy Denis Kang in a re-match. That is not a good outcome for Misaki.
However, the night of career damage in PRIDE just started after Misaki’s loss. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, the little brother of #2 PRIDE Heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, faced off against Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou (from Cameroon). Sokoudjou was a massive underdog going into this fight, ranging anywhere from +1000 to +1600 in major online sportsbooks. In an interview with Brazilian journalist Denis Martins, Rogerio Nogueira told Martins that he had only managed to see video tape of one Sokoudjou fight (in WEC) and that obtaining footage of Sokoudjou was very hard for him to do. And this bugged him, because he (Rogerio) likes to watch tapes of his opponents so that he isn’t surprised by anything that occurs in the ring. The back-story behind Rogerio’s appearance on PRIDE 33 made the stakes even higher. His bigger brother, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, has struggled to politically keep his top position in the PRIDE organization. However, after two very exciting fights with Josh Barnett last year in Japan, big Nogueira has managed to keep his political clout. Little Nogueira, however, has had trouble getting booked on a lot of PRIDE shows. The most notable win in Rogerio’s career in the PRIDE ring was on NYE several years ago against Kazushi Sakuraba. For Rogerio Nogueira, he had little to gain and a lot to lose facing Sokoudjou on the PRIDE 33 show.
In one of the biggest upsets in MMA history, Sokoudjou KO’d Rogerio Nogueira on the PRIDE 33 event. To say that this caused major career damage to Rogerio Nogueira would be the understatement of the year. Indirectly, this also affects the political power of BTT (Brazilian Top Team) in PRIDE. Everyone is left stunned with this fight outcome. The damage to the Nogueira name in Japan has been done.
So far, two Japanese careers (Misaki & Rogerio) were damaged on PRIDE 33. However, potentially even more Japanese career-damage was yet to come on the PRIDE 33 event. The main match marketed in the Japanese press was Takanori Gomi vs. Nick Diaz, the semi-main event of the PRIDE 33 show. Diaz last fought in UFC this past November in Sacramento. He was scheduled to face Thomas “Wildman” Denny for the Gracie FC Welterweight title on January 20th in Miami, Florida at American Airlines Arena. However, a week before the Gracie FC event, the building suggested to the event promoters to cancel the event due to poor ticket sales. Diaz was the face of Gracie FC’s big ad campaign for the event. While a very exciting fighter and great talker, Diaz wasn’t in position as a national draw to sell a lot of tickets. For Nick Diaz, a fight against Takanori Gomi presented a very good opportunity for him to face a big name and have a legitimate shot of winning the fight.
For Takanori Gomi, the PR leading up to his fight against Nick Diaz at PRIDE 33 was very interesting on many levels. First, there were a couple of Japanese newspaper articles (including a prominent one in Daily Sports) in which Gomi stated that he wanted to fight in the UFC and become a big star in America. PRIDE’s response to this was that they would act on behalf of Gomi as his booking agent and get this done. Gomi talked about wanting to fight Sean Sherk, BJ Penn, and Matt Hughes. It was big talk coming from Gomi, who had come off of an impressive win against Mitsuhiro Ishida on PRIDE’s 2006 New Year’s Eve event at Saitama Super Arena.
A couple of weeks after Gomi’s proclamation of advancing his career into America, PRIDE announced that they had booked Takanori Gomi vs. Nick Diaz for their PRIDE 33 event. The marketing of this match in Japan versus how it was marketed in America (it really wasn’t pushed in the States) was curious, at best. DSE promoted the fight of Takanori Gomi vs. Nick Diaz as “Gomi vs. UFC top-class fighter.” In addition, PRIDE used the logic that this was essentially a PRIDE vs. UFC fight and that if Gomi won, it would prove to everyone that PRIDE is stronger than UFC, therefore starting PRIDE’s ‘raid’ on UFC. In other words, PRIDE wanted to spin to the Japanese fans an interpromotional war storyline that never truly existed. What made the “Gomi vs. UFC top class fighter” storyline so laughable was that Diaz is not a top-class fighter in UFC’s 170-pound division. With talent such as champion Georges St. Pierre, Diego Sanchez, Matt Hughes, Karo Parisyan, Josh Koscheck, and Jon Fitch, you would be hard-pressed to figure out how Diaz would fit into such a loaded division. And don’t forget Diaz’s memorable feud with Joe Riggs at UFC 57 (Super Bowl 2006 weekend event in Las Vegas). Who lost that fight? Nick Diaz lost. Too bad PRIDE couldn’t find video footage of the Diaz/Riggs post-fight encounter at the hospital, or they surely would have played that at the arena as well.
As we would see later at the PRIDE 33 show, the pro-wrestling-based faulty logic would continue to rear its ugly head.
Going into the Gomi vs. Diaz fight at PRIDE 33, the NSAC (Nevada State Athletic Commission) rules were definitely favorable to Diaz. Diaz is a fighter who likes to throw a lot of punches, but punches that aren’t hard and are designed to score points under the Unified rules. On that front, Diaz came into the fight with an advantage. The two men had an amazing war in the first round, but Gomi was completely exhausted by the end of the round. In round two, Diaz managed to submit Gomi and bring back memories of Marcus Aurelio’s submission on Gomi last year in Japan. The Aurelio loss shocked the Japanese fans and Gomi got his revenge win back last November, but it was in ugly fashion. For those who want to say that Diaz winning over Gomi in a war at PRIDE 33 will help Diaz become a star in America, there’s past history that suggests otherwise. When Gomi lost to Aurelio in 2006, the win did little to nothing to build up Aurelio as a star in Japan. In fact, he proceeded to lose to Mitsuhiro Ishida and then lose to Gomi in an ugly re-match. Some MMA writers used Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama and Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar analogies to describe the war between Gomi and Diaz (with the implication being that both men would become stars from the great fight). The reality is that the losers of those wars (Takayama and Bonnar) ended up paying the price down the road, while the winners reaped the rewards. Takayama ended up suffering a stroke against Kensuke Sasaki a couple of years later in Osaka after a hard-hitting G-1 tournament pro-wrestling match in the New Japan ring, and Bonnar has seen his stock as a fighter plummet (after winning a controversial decision over Keith Jardine and then getting busted by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for testing positive for Boldenone).
For Takanori Gomi, the loss to Nick Diaz is devastating. It completely halts any talk in Japanese media circles about Gomi being ready to face Sean Sherk, BJ Penn, or Matt Hughes. It also brings up the memory of Gomi’s loss against Marcus Aurelio and completely damages Gomi’s stock in the eyes of casual Japanese fight fans as a Japanese ‘ace’ for his weight class. For DSE, the loss devastated their logic in Japanese circles of PRIDE > UFC. If anything, it creates the image of ex-UFC > PRIDE.
After Gomi lost to Diaz, it was possible but highly improbable to think that the situation could get any worse for DSE at PRIDE 33. However, it got worse.
The main event of PRIDE 33 featured 205-pound Middleweight champion Vanderlei Silva vs. 185-pound Welterweight champion Dan Henderson. In the initial PRIDE 33 US TV ads, Henderson was marketed as “the only American brave enough to face Vanderlei Silva.” The implication was simple – Dan Henderson was not afraid of Silva, but Chuck Liddell was. The only focus in the Japanese media circles for Silva vs. Henderson was that this fight would be Silva’s big introduction to the American audience. The logic was that once he beat Henderson, he would then make the grandstanding challenge to Chuck Liddell (once again) and embarrass UFC into booking the fight. On Friday during the weigh-ins, the Japanese media reported that Silva was calling out Liddell. Again, the directive was made very clear here. What wasn’t made clear, however, was why the “American hero” Henderson was fighting Silva in the first place. Why would PRIDE risk the credibility of their 205-pound champion losing to someone a weight class below that category? When did the fans clamor to see a re-match between Henderson and Silva when the first one produced a decision in the first encounter? Their last encounter happened over six years ago.
On the PRIDE 33 show, a video package was shown featuring Silva beating up on Quinton Jackson, and then footage of Jackson beating Liddell from 2003 was shown. The implication, of course, was that Silva was better than Jackson and Liddell, therefore Silva was better than Liddell. This A > B > C meaning A > C logic is foolish in MMA. However, PRIDE continued to use the pro-wrestling logic, confident that Silva would have a good performance against Henderson. Not once was Silva’s last fight (his brutal KO loss to Mirko Cro Cop last September) mentioned or even acknowledged.
Silva vs. Henderson started out as boring, but started to pick up in action. Silva managed to rock Henderson, but Henderson maintained his pace for the rest of the fight. In the third round, he drilled Silva and knocked him out. It was absolutely the worst outcome possible for Silva’s career in Japan. 2-3 in his last 5 fights, and it entirely squashed any potential for Silva facing Chuck Liddell while under PRIDE contract. Meanwhile, the enigma known as Dan Henderson (who sometimes fights like “Dangerous Dan” and other times fights like “Decision Dan”) is now a two-crown champion. PRIDE’s 185-pound Welterweight champion, who never fought the #1 contender who beat him last August, ended up defeating PRIDE’s 205-pound Middleweight champion (who thought he would win and use the fight as a stepping stone to get to Chuck Liddell). Overall, both in the Japanese and American marketplace, a bad outcome for DSE promoters in the main event.
Four fighters (Misaki, Rogerio, Gomi, and Silva) suffered major career damage in Japan after the PRIDE 33 event. There will be PRIDE supporters who will immediately state that automatic re-matches between Misaki/Trigg, Rogerio/Sokoudjou, Gomi/Diaz, and Silva/Henderson will draw big money in Japan. The reality is that they won’t. Without having a free-to-air television deal in Japan, PRIDE will be fortunate to have 50,000-70,000 eyeballs who actually watched the live fights on SkyPerfecTV PPV. How will the rest of the Japanese fight fans get their coverage of these fights? Through the newspapers and various news wires. When fans read that Takanori Gomi lost to Nick Diaz and Vanderlei Silva lost to Dan Henderson, this isn’t going to propel Diaz and Henderson in becoming bigger stars in Japan. It’s just going to provide a shocked reaction from the Japanese fight fans that Gomi and Silva lost. More damage done to the losers than progress gained for the winners. That’s the conundrum that DSE promoters are facing right now in Japan.
“Silva, Gomi lose — Henderson becomes 2-crown champion = PRIDE American event” — Sports Navigator (and in the article itself, Gomi’s loss is described as a ‘nightmarish defeat’)
It will be an event heralded by MMA fans as more entertaining than it had any right to be. It will also be remembered as a night where a lot of big Japanese names suffered career-damaging losses. A fun night for the fans, but a gut-wrenching night for DSE promoters with their long-term event planning in Japan. It may not be long-term, after all.